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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Maryland and Wisconsin Researchers Evaluate Health Equity Leadership Institute and Share Resources for Increasing Underrepresented Investigators Engaged in Health Disparities Research

Faculty from the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed and evaluated an intensive annual week-long research and career-development institute—the Health Equity Leadership Institute (HELI)—with the goal of increasing the number of underrepresented scholars who can sustain their ongoing commitment to health disparities and health equity research by successfully competing for tenure track academic positions and receiving independent federal funding.

HELI organizers published an article in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science which evaluates the institute’s impact from its inception in 2010 to 2016. The group also created a ‘HELI Resource Toolbox’ that has sample tools and resources to help others use the model and adapt it for their own purposes.

[Photo: Health Equity Leadership Institute participants from the 2015 cohort.]

Expanding the number of junior (and senior) researchers from various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and sociocultural backgrounds can extend the scope of questions investigated and bring innovative methodologies to public health and biomedical research, the authors explain.

The weeklong HELI “research boot camp,” is led by faculty from the University of Maryland School of Public Health (in College Park) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is hosted on the Wisconsin campus for cohorts of between 22 and 26 scholars, and aims to help these scholars sustain commitment to health equity research. After HELI concludes, the cohort stays connected through a WordPress blog, Facebook page and emails.

“HELI is a place where investigators can bring their ‘whole self’ – professional and personal – to share their experiences of marginalization and together strategize ways to overcome career barriers without fear of reprisal,” said Dr. James Butler III, associate professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s department of behavioral and community health and an associate director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity, who led the article. “We hope that academic and biomedical institutions will become catalysts and develop their own version of HELI that engages, mentors, and promotes the careers of underrepresented investigators.”

Data show that underrepresented researchers—even after accounting for differences in training, experience and productivity—are less likely to be promoted than their white colleagues and obtain National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, the article said.

Between 2010 and 2016, HELI has brought 145 scholars, (78 percent from an underrepresented background and 81 percent female) to engage with each other and learn from supportive faculty.  Since its inception, 85 percent of scholars remain in academic positions. In the first three cohorts, 73 percent of HELI participants have been promoted and 23 percent have secured independent federal funding.

The authors acknowledge that a five-day institute is unlikely to lead to career success and satisfaction on its own, but it can play a critical role in helping these researchers succeed. As such, what makes HELI distinctive is the creation of a trusting, open atmosphere in which racism, painful experiences and fears, can be shared, and junior scholars feel less alone in their academic journey.

Visit the HELI website for more information, including forthcoming details about the 2018 institute.

Find the publication in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science or via the Cambridge Core.